The invention of the suitcase ushered in the dictatorship of the perfect rectangle, and with it, a new form of slavery.
No job can be more difficult or less rewarding than recreating, in foreign parts, the tight-packed perfection that was barely possible at home. And six hours later, at the next hotel, the fragile edifice is dismantled again.On our last vacation in France, my wife and I put our feet down. No more. We would find a nice spot, drop the bags there, and not budge for a week. We would rent.
Happy days of property hunting followed. Armed with a thick color catalogue from Vacances en Campagne, a British outfit that rents properties in Britain, France and Italy, we roamed the length and breadth of France, flipping pages.
How about the elegant townhouse in Bergerac? A little steep, even at the off-season rate of $2,300 a week. Likewise the darling 17th-century chateau along the Loire, and any number of hillside villas strung along the Riviera. We began concentrating on dwelling places fit for the yeomen, if not peasants, that we are.
And so we found ourselves, in late May, lurching up a steep, stony driveway in northern Provence, about a half hour's drive northeast of Avignon, toward a rather crumbly-looking tan stone outbuilding set amid acres of vines and dramatic limestone hills.
What lay within we knew not, beyond the terse description in the catalogue. The young owner, Marc Brunel, a thin, not unfriendly fellow from nearby Beaumes-de-Venise, unlocked the shutter-style cedar doors and motioned us inside to behold what our $660 had bought.
Relief washed over us. The place was no frills but nice. There were cool tan tiles on the floor of the single large room downstairs, a combination living and dining room with a tiny kitchen off in one corner. Upstairs, reached by a tiled stone staircase with one twist, was a room with a double bed and a bathroom with tub and hand-held shower. No television, no radio. No telephone.
The furnishings were utilitarian at best. We took a half step back in revulsion at the truly hideous bedspread, emblazoned with the head of a Bengal tiger, and immediately stashed it away in the rickety armoire. One of the four burners on the stove didn't work. The mattress was pretty thin and, come to think of it, so were the towels, which were provided, along with sheets and washcloths, at a surcharge of $20.
On the other hand, the bathroom fixtures were all new, and the kitchen was pretty well stocked with pots, pans, dishes and utensils.
Besides, the place had charm to spare, it was just the right size for two people, and the location was magnificent. The front door and bedroom window overlooked a couple of small farmhouses surrounded by vines that extended to within a few yards of the tiny front terrace.
The nearest house was perhaps a quarter mile away. Off in the distance, at our backs, loomed the Dentelles de Mont-mirail, jagged limestone outcroppings that looked like the plates along the back of a stegosaurus. To the northeast, the bald peak of Mont Ventoux gleamed, like a displaced Alp. The sun blazed, and the air was crystalline. When the breeze blew, it bore the scent of herbs and flowers.
Just by the front door, a wild garden flourished. A large circle of smashed grass and marble-sized droppings suggested that our arrival had disturbed a wild boar, base ingredient for a favorite local pate. It was probably nursing a grudge, since we had deprived it of a pleasant life, surrounded by a cherry tree, roses, and broom, and for several days I flinched whenever I heard rustling in the underbrush.
Seven days of bliss ensued. We unpacked, took inventory, moved a few things around, and pushed and pulled a bit to make the place seem like home. In a tiny closet I discovered, amidst a pile of French Harlequin romances, a P.G. Wodehouse and an early Edna O'Brien - just the thing.
A kind of log on the living-room sideboard contained helpful hints on local restaurants, shops and winemakers, where to get the cheapest gas and so on. A previous guest from Australia conferred the ultimate accolade on the local eateries. The best ones, she confided, "approach the quality of Melbourne's fabulous restaurants."
After establishing base camp, we headed out in the mornings to whichever nearby town was holding a market and stocked up for the evening meal.
In this way, while on the prowl for tapenade, anchoiade, olive oil, spit-roasted rabbits, asparagus, Cavaillon melons, and pelardon, picodon and banon cheeses, we explored Vaison-la-Romaine and its extensive Roman ruins, Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (the town in Peter Mayle's "Hotel Pastis"), and Nyons, the French olive capital.
After shopping, lunch. Then, off to whatever town on the map looked appealing.
Early on, at the sprawling market at Vaison-la-Romaine, we had picked up several cassettes devoted to French singers of the 30s and 40s, so we rolled along the back roads of the Vaucluse as the effervescent Charles Trenet and the golden-throated Rina Ketty sang their hearts out.
I would like to say that we applied ourselves to intensively studying the art and history of the region. That would be a lie. We shopped. We cooked. We ate. We inhaled the perfumed air, we inspected the olive, the lavender and the grape, and as dusk settled over the vineyards, and tractors chugged along the rows of vines, we gazed vacantly out over the tough-looking hills, and sipped a chilled glass of sweet muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, chief object of our affections.
That's what happens when you rent.
Life quickly becomes small and homey, organized around the little assignments and pleasures that make up 90 percent of ordinary life. This approach lessens the crippling fatigue of see-it-all, do-it-all tourism and lightens the almost unsupportable regimen of eating too well and too richly night after night. It also forces you to take part in the culture rather than making it an object of study. Mastering the thousand and one routines of local life becomes a highly instructive game and exposes you to important institutions.
The French hypermarket, a Gallic K-Mart and supermarket rolled into one, says as much about French life as any museum. We finally set foot in one because our house did not have a teapot, and we wanted a cheap one. Our two hours cruising the air-conditioned aisles of the Etienne Leclerc megastore was time well spent, in my view.
I do feel a twinge of regret at giving short shrift to Carpentras, the medieval capital of the papal domain known as the Comtat Venaissin.
On the other hand, if I hadn't pulled off the road north of Arles to pick up bread for the evening meal, I would have missed an impromptu lecture by the baker on the ins and outs of the fougasse, an ornate bread in the form of a puffed-up pretzel that I always thought was the size of a dinner plate. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Usually it's no bigger than a Danish. Now I know better, and I feel better for it.